Magazine article The Spectator

Madam Remembered

Magazine article The Spectator

Madam Remembered

Article excerpt

Ninette de Valois, the exceptional lady who gave Britain the Royal Ballet, an internationally renowned ballet repertoire, one of the world's best ballet schools and who was the last of the great leaders of the dance world, died last week aged 102.

Unlike many self-professed disciples of Diaghilev, who tried to emulate blindly the highly individual, inimitable vision of the Russian impresario, de Valois laid the foundations of her long-lasting achievements on a personal absorption of the artistic and organisational principles she had learnt while dancing with the Ballets Russes. Not unlike Diaghilev, whose initial aim was to make Russian culture known all over the world, she too strove to create a dance reality that relied mostly on homegrown talents. And like Diaghilev, the man responsible for changing her original name, Edris Stannus, into the more poetic and aristocratic one she was known by both inside and outside the ballet world, de Valois believed firmly in a fluid and constant collaboration between the various arts.

In line with the successful formulae of the Ballets Russes, she too gathered around her some of the finest artists of the 20th century, turning ballet into a truly `high art' form. At the same time, she went a step further than her illustrious predecessor, for she understood that the lasting success of a ballet venture depended greatly on the creation of an institution where dancers could receive both the technical training and the artistic preparation needed to build up a first-class company.

It is interesting to note that the majority of standard dance-history manuals refer to the creation of what eventually became the Royal Ballet School, but tend to overlook de Valois's own contribution to the development of a training method. De Valois's ballet syllabus, with which generations of excellent artists grew up, stemmed from a carefully filtered amalgam of the learning experiences of its creator, who had studied with great pedagogues such as the Italian ballet master Enrico Cecchetti. And so her syllabus was both a precious link with a glorious dance tradition and one of the vital informing factors of what became known as the English style.

A refined artist, who combined wit with a voracious intellectual curiosity, this `idealist without illusions' (to quote the title of Kathryn Sorley Walker's splendid biography) was also an exceptional dancemaker. Works such as Job (1931), The Rake's Progress (1935) and Checkmate (1937) stand out still not just as valuable testimonies of a bygone choreographic era, but as lively and unique examples of the choreographic craft. May Dame Ninette's legacy last forever and inspire a worthy successor. G.P.

During my first term as an 11-year-old boarder at the Royal Ballet School, I remember trying to overcome the embarrassment of wearing non-trendy mufti to a school party, a situation Malory Towers and the Princess Tina Ballet Book had ill-prepared me for. …

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